For so many of us, this year has been one of the most turbulent and chaotic in recent memory. Our individual, collective, and familial loss and sacrifice is on a scale incomparable for all but the eldest amongst us. In years of both prosperity and despair, Christmas is an opportunity to reconnect, reconcile, recharge and reimagine the year ahead. Although both regional and national regulations in much of the Western world mean that this year’s festivities may not match their predecessors in scale, there may never be a better reason to double down on their exuberance. For large families with many extended members, restrictions on the numbers of households able to spend Christmas day together may mean a day usually spent together must now be split amongst households. While they have their downsides, small gatherings also present opportunity, and in light of a rather disastrous year offer more than ample opportunity to toast with something special to an altogether more positive year to follow. In this article, you’ll find my five best Champagne picks for Christmas, all available via iDealwine. I’ve steered clear of the usual suspects, opting for a more exploratory selection that you can share with your nearest and dearest over this years festive period.
In 1770, during his voyage to New Zealand, Captain James Cook would discover a stretch of land spanning New Zealand’s South Island, to the south of the Marlborough Sounds and north of Clifford Bay. Cook’s discovery coincided with regional flooding, which washed large amounts of sediment into the sea. Noticing the water’s opaque appearance, Cook christened the area Cloudy Bay. Cloudy Bay’s name was later officially altered to Te Koko-o-Kupe / Cloudy Bay, with the Māori name a nod to the early explorer Kupe. 215 years later, seasoned winemaker David Hohnen, convinced of Cloudy Bay’s potential to produce great wine, invested in the best land the region had to offer and established Cloudy Bay Winery. Now under the ownership of LVMH, many consider Cloudy Bay to be amongst the world’s best Sauvignon Blanc, including wine writer, George Taber. Defined in part by mouthfeel, Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc also boasts intense, concentrated fruits, namely grapefruit, passionfruit, and guava. Joining via Zoom, following the recent launch of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc 2020, winemaker Daniel Sorrel told how chasing one particular thiol, 3MH, has come to help shape these defining characteristics. In this article, I examine thiols in more detail and explore more closely how Cloudy Bay and others hunt 3MH.
Behind a patchwork of buildings in Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a so-called ‘commune déléguée’ in the Vallée de la Marne, a single hectare of south-southeast facing Pinot Noir vines produce arguably one of the world’s most vinous and critically-acclaimed Champagnes. Le Clos Saint-Hilaire, its name lent from the local church of Église Saint-Hilaire, belongs to ‘super grower’ Billecart-Salmon. Though the commune itself is classified premier cru, albeit amongst only two villages to have scored 99% in the Échelle des Crus classification framework, seventh-generation CEO, Mathieu Roland-Bilecart has his own views on the cru framework. Views which are certainly emboldened by this tiny parcel off the Boulevard du N. Having produced only five vintages since it’s first as a standalone bottling in 1995, you’d be forgiven for underestimating the extent to which this outwardly humble site continues to shape the houses persistent and determined evolution. Pointing toward the vineyards scattering of pumpkins and wool-laden residents, Mathieu describes the site as his research and development facility. Shortly after this years harvest, Mathieu and I wondered the site discussing in more detail its extended importance.
Since the first Phoenician settlers arrived in 11th century BC, Rioja has had a long and colourful winemaking tradition. As early as the late 13th century there is evidence of Rioja’s wine being exported into other regions and from the 15th century on, the Rioja Alta was particularly well-known for wine growing. As is the case across most of Europe, viticulture in Rioja can be traced back to the Roman empire and continued there even during Moorish occupation. As a result of the phylloxera epidemic, during which the French were the first and hardest hit, immediate and insatiable demand for all the wine Rioja could produce swept across France. By 1890, the influx of French négociant and winemakers, who had brought with them extensive knowledge, techniques and experience, had brought about a period of unprecedented growth for the region’s industry. That same year, five Riojan and Basque families founded the ‘Sociedad Vinicola de La Rioja Alta’ which would later, after merging with the Ardanza winery, become La Rioja Alta S.A. 130 years later, La Rioja Alta, as well as being the only winery in Rioja to make 3 Gran Reserva, is globally recognised for its age-worthy, quality-driven, and consistently overperforming wines. To celebrate this laudable anniversary, and to mark the release of the 2014 Viña Arana, I discussed some of the estate’s most impactful changes in recent decades with La Rioja Alta winemaker, Julio Sáenz.
In 1987, Robert Drouhin of famed Burgundian negociant Maison Joseph Drouhin purchased land in Dundee Hills. Since then, a flurry of French vintners has taken up residence in Oregon, including but not limited to Dominique Lafon, Louis-Michel Liger-Belair, Jean-Nicolas Méo, and Louis Jadot. With them, these seasoned winemakers brought centuries of acquired knowledge of growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in many of the world’s most lauded terroir. Alongside respecting tradition, these vintners wholeheartedly embraced the freedom afforded to them by the New World. In the 1980s just a few dozen wineries were noted in Oregon, today there are more than 800 cultivating grapes across the state. Whilst the ‘French Invasion’ wasn’t the origin of winegrowing in Oregon, it certainly shifted the way the world looked at the region. Now, after decades of research into soils, clones, and site selection quality has boomed. Off the back of a successful project in Napa, in the spring of 2005, Dr Madaiah Revana, a cardiologist and wine enthusiast, began searching for the ideal plot and an experienced winemaker with the goal of producing Pinot Noir in Oregon that would rival great Burgundy. Following their launch into the UK, I spoke with Alexana head winemaker, Bryan Weil, about site selection, farming, winemaking, and more.
We Brits have an extensive, historical love affair with Bordeaux. Since the 12th century, when Eleanor of Aquitaine married Henry Plantagenet, who had decreed ships sailing from Bordeaux would be exempt from export tax, the volume of Bordeaux imported to the UK has represented a significant portion of total production. With top châteaux, on both the Left and Right bank, experiencing astronomical price rises in recent decades, and for many centuries Bordeaux known as a wine of the upper-class elites, there has been a stark failure by many, myself included, to explore the ‘rest’ beyond the few. Admittedly, for whatever reason, perhaps lack of inclination, poor on-shelf representation, or a blossoming new world ‘stealing the show’ I’ve failed to explore the abundance of keenly priced, equally quality-conscious, producers on both sides of the Gironde. Jane Anson’s wonderful new release ‘Inside Bordeaux’, an exciting new generation of winemakers, and a handful of recently-enjoyed superb bottles have convinced me to revisit the region and shake off my misconceptions. Having recently shared 8 distinctive Burgundies for under £30, in this article I point toward 6 great-value Bordeaux for under £22 that may just encourage you to dive a little deeper into the inspired winemakers of Bordeaux.
Nestled discretely in the former home of the now-defunct Hambros bank, opposite Britain’s oldest wine and spirits merchant, Berry Bros & Rudd, you will find 67 Pall Mall. Spanning three floors, in a building imagined by renowned English architect Edwin Lutyens, the private members club has come to be a mecca of sorts for wine lovers the world over. While the decor is grandiose and traditional, the team, lead by Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn, is innovative, energetic, and dynamic. Facing a global pandemic, they’ve revolutionised wine tasting at home, shipping some of the worlds greatest wines around the globe to existing and newly-subscribed ‘digital members’. The club has demonstrated unparalleled resilience and commitment to delivering to members despite facing an existential crisis. Further expanding their repertoire, I was excited to receive word from Ronan of the imminent release of the club’s inaugural book. ‘Wine and Food: The Perfect Match’ sees Sayburn and head chef, Marcus Verberne, guide readers through an introduction to wine and wine service followed by 100 mouthwatering recipes and wine pairings. The book is available now, in this article I took a sneak peek prior to launch.
In 1224, in his notable poem Battle of the Wines, Henry d’Andeli tells the story of a famous wine tasting organized by the French king Philip Augustus. In this tasting, samples from across Europe were tasted and judged by an English priest. The priest classified the wines as either ‘Celebrated’ in the case of those which pleased him or ‘Excommunicated’ for those that did not. With the rise of the industrial revolution and the growth of international trade, the wine industry has become a $354.7 billion global market. But wine quality cannot be ascertained ex-ante, for this reason, the industry faces an information asymmetry problem. The producer, distributor or retailer involved in the economic transaction often possess greater material knowledge than the general consumer. Where this is the case, systems emerge which attempt to address this information imbalance. Filmmakers spend millions creating trailers, in literature, there are renowned awards such as the Booker Prize, and in the wine industry there have been scores and competitions. From well-established, renowned international awards to small, emerging regional competitions, format and scale is broad and diverse. However, in a marketplace where applications like Vivino provide consumers with immediate community-generated reviews, whether competitions are effective tools in establishing objective, qualitative benchmarks to aid purchasing decisions or serve as revenue-generating marketing machines is not altogether clear. In this article, I explore the research on wine competitions and discuss what producers should consider before entering their wines into a competition.
Unlike most other agricultural products, bar the most niche of fruit and vegetable, a wine’s origin, in some cases down to a single acre of land, is touted as a semi-mystical source of quality. Although lacking an exact definition, Jancis Robinson notes terroir to be a vines ‘total natural growing environment’. While some consider farming practices a function of terroir, for the most part, it is inclusive of the place, not the person. It is said that the soil, subsoil, rocks, exposition, mesoclimate, and microclimate of a particular vine, are amongst that which most influence the grapevines phenotype. Although romanticised by the French, recognition of place precedes them by some time. The Ancient Greeks were known to stamp amphorae with a seal of origin, the result being different regions established varying reputations for the quality of their wine. But one need not look to Ancient Greece to observe the importance of place. Anybody who has planted in their own garden will recognise that particular plots, even within a 30m² site, perform better, yielding more fruitful results, than others. However, both viticulture and wine differ greatly from almost all other farming endeavours. The sheer volume of decisions made by the vigneron and the subsequent scale of their influence is so vast that one must wonder to what extent terroir can really be credited for the style of the finished wine. Amongst natural wine circles ‘sense of place’ has become a hallmark of authenticity. To ‘let the place show’ is the mantra of the most zen winos. But when these ‘small’ decisions yield such notably broad variance, is this a plausible proposition? Has fetishising terroir obfuscated and subordinated the role of the farmer? A recent conversation with Wine Advocates, Dr William Kelley, stoked my thoughts.
As a wealthy, mercantile nation, England had a marked influence on the development of sparkling Champagne. On both sides of the channel, the roots of the modern Champagne industry were laid during the Industrial Revolution. Most notably, the British method of coal-fired glassmaking contributed to stronger bottles able to withstand higher pressure. By the end of the 19th century, Champagne was making its mark and embedding itself into popular culture. Since 1950, global sales have grown steadily, with 13 million bottles sold in 2019 in the UK alone. To the surprise of many, there are almost 16,000 individual growers and 320 houses in Champagne. However, those 320 houses sell almost 70% of the regions total production. Only around 2000 of these growers continue to grow and produce their own wine. A concentration of powerful conglomerates raising the price paid to growers for their crop has made bottling one’s own wine economically unfeasible and increasingly unattractive. In 2018 alone, 120 growers disappeared. Despite being the second-largest consumer of Champagne, here in the UK, we import only 130 growers with the vast majority of sales achieved by the 5 largest houses. Lack of visibility in such an important market makes the prospect of surviving as a grower all the more daunting. Sip Champagnes is the brainchild of friends Daniel Blatchford and Peter Crawford. Together, photographer and tech-wiz Blatchford, and longstanding Champagne enthusiast and collector, Crawford, aim to platform underexposed artisan producers by providing customers with a unique exploration through a subscription model and standalone bottle shop. I spoke with the pair about this exciting project.
Growing awareness of the impact of food on wellbeing is a good step forward in terms of public health. However, there is growing concern over whether it is problematic to consider all preservatives and additives in general as harmful. An unfortunate byproduct of growing public concern has been that unscrupulous charlatans are more able to sensationalise objectively harmless additives and capitalise upon unsuspecting consumers. Admittedly there has in the past been genuine scandals creating cause for concern, the 1985 diethylene glycol scandal an example of one. With that being said, robust regulatory systems, regular review of the science, and a large amount of data now required pre-approval, should give consumers confidence that they are buying wine free of harmful additives. Winemakers are well aware of the stringent regulations they are subject to and have a good track record of compliance. Modern consumers expect to purchase quality products (albeit this is a somewhat subjective measure) which are free of spoilage and have a long shelf-life. In order to achieve a consistent quality product in a commercially viable manner, winemakers have available to them a number of harmless additives. Whilst there may be over 60 additives available to winemakers, the reality is that only a handful are used in often small, measured quantities. In this article, I hope to demystify common additives in winemaking and provide a more nuanced exploration of what these ‘additives’ are, how, why, and in what quantities they are used, and to discuss their harmless nature.